The Soul and/or the Spirit? (Paul Tonson)

  (30 January 17)

 The Soul and/or the Spirit?


Rev Dr Paul Tonson muses on contemporary meanings for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’,
in response to an article by Beryl Myers on the nature of the soul (see below).



Thanks to Beryl Meyers for her entrée to this subject. In her brief sortie, there are some pointers of general relevance to the ethos and thought of SoFIA that I would like to highlight.

The first point is that language is a matter of common usage, such as "soul destroying", "music for the soul"; and "soul searching". Popular usage of some religious language across so many years and cultures has given many words such a wide semantic field that they are no longer useful. Such a word is ’god’.

I believe one task of progressive theology is to focus on the language of belief as distinct from beliefs per se. I call this a metacritical task. Instead of asking whether or not we believe some dogma, we ask whether the language is meaningful. Our critique is applied first to the language, not to the dogmatic proposition. This critique is an appropriately subversive  activity.

Whether certain language is meaningful will depend on whether the categories behind the language are meaningful. This brings us to the discussion in the previous issue about the Greek categories that underlie creedal propositions. One of the most prominent is ’substance’; Christ is said to be of one substance with the father. Substance is a category from Plato, often paired with Form.

In my view, the imposition of Platonic Greek categories on Christian thought has become a millstone around our necks, not least the false dichotomy between humanity and divinity. If such Greek categories are no longer meaningful, because we do not think about reality in this dualistic way, then the Christology, set out by church fathers after prolonged and agonizing discussions, is simply meaningless to us. So we look for other language to talk about God in the life of Jesus.

For my part, I do not consider that we can simply dump the language of classical Christian theology in which the Christian story has been told.  I prefer to consider alternative language that we might use. My own practice has been to utilise words from lived human experience common to all worldviews, rather than from religion. This means to choose existential rather than metaphysical terms.

Beryl’s reflections show how the above considerations apply to the word ’soul’.  Perhaps most people will agree that the word soul refers to some inward aspect of human life. But we do not need to think of soul as ’a part of us’. This illustrates a second general point, that our theology needs to avoid using words such as soul or spirit or God as substantive nouns. We need to reframe them as qualities of life.

To explain a little, questioning Christian people sometimes say to me that the traditional idea of God has lost meaning – the notion of God as a being, and God as having independent agency in the world. But these same people may find they can hold to the scriptural idea of God in whom we live and move and have our being, since this notion of God is a quality not a being.

Similarly my humanist and atheist friends, who share the ethical altruism of people of faith, find the idea of God and of the supernatural incredible. But the idea that human life and nature has a spiritual aspect is open for discussion.

This returns us to the word ’spirit’ which may be meaningful within a wide range of worldviews, of faith or freethought, providing we desist from the idea of ’a spirit’. Spirit is a meaningful word to describe the quality of enthusiasm in a person, or even in a horse! This idea is congruent with biblical usage, in both Hebrew and Greek languages, in which spirit is also breath and life force and dynamic. After I die, I will have the same body as before, but no breath, no spirit.

We may take a further step to note that spirit as enthusiasm is more than mere breath. We have a powerful word in English that crosses this spectrum of meaning, namely ’motivation’. Etymologically, the physical aspect of motivation is evident in relation to movement. But motivation is also about what moves us to action, suggesting that thought and feeling and will power are at work. This suggests to me that our use of the word spirit must embrace these three elements in some way.

Another approach that makes this point relates to the word spiritual. Within the above framework, I reject as false the dichotomy between physical and spiritual. Rather I see a spiritual aspect to the outward elements of physical and social life as much as to the inward elements of thought, feeling and will.

I conclude that spirit and spiritual refer to an integrating quality of life, a dynamic within us that fosters and expresses wholeness. This surely embraces caring interest in the living that Beryl refers to; our wholeness is predicated on caring for oneself and for others.  Soul also may be understood in the same framework as a quality of life. However, the three examples of usage that Beryl cited indicate that soul differs from spirit in one sense, that it refers more to a receptive and reflective aspect of life rather than a generating aspect.

Others may elaborate the two terms further but my reflections are an invitation to express the idea of spirit and soul without recourse to the language of God or divinity. I have also written without recourse to metaphor but I welcome the cooking analogy Beryl has introduced, that soul or spirit are like an essence that enhance our being.

I differ from Beryl in coming to the matter of God at the end, since I hope my existential approach can serve as a common ground for reflection about spirituality across the faith-freethought spectrum. This shared reflection is a crucial and timely agenda in a society where many people consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR).

In papers I have presented locally to SoFiA and to humanist and atheist audiences, I have floated a new term in order to precipitate a fresh conversation, namely the term ’godness’. This term represents my argument that we are concerned with a quality of life, not a substantive being. But it also intends to place our reflections in the context of traditional conceptions of God.

In my view, godness is an enduring, universal quality of life that stands over against the temporal and particular qualities of individual existence. In this sense, each individual life is a product of godness. It seems to me that the essential feature of what we call a faith attitude towards life is not a belief in the existence of God. Rather faith is about the sense we have of life as a privilege and a gift and about the direction and motivation that this sense of life brings. Soul and spirit are our capacities to recognise and respond to godness.


The Soul


By Beryl Myers


We have used this word for many generations, e.g. "the dear old soul"; "soul destroying", "music for the soul"; "soul searching" etc. We think we understand what is meant, but do we? It would mean that it is a part of a person. But it cannot show up in an X-ray or scan. So how do we know everyone has a soul?

Twenty-odd years ago, I was in a yoga exercise class and a woman there believed that ’God’ (as we were taught) really meant not a Deity to be worshipped, but "the God that is within us all". I was not awake to the various religious philosophies at that time. Now thinking of "the God within", is that a euphemism to mean it is our soul? On the other hand, is the soul an alternative word for the ’Spirit’?

 We have all heard of the ’Mind, Body and Spirit Festivals’. ’Mind’ and ’Body’ most people understand — but ’Spirit’ seems a bit spooky to some people. The only religion that talks freely and believes in ’Spirits’ is the Spiritualist church. But where do they put the ’Soul’? I understand the Spiritualist churches believe that a spirit takes a caring interest in the living, especially relatives and friends. To what extent is that idea accepted by people (religious or not)?

Take a cooking analogy: If I add a little vanilla essence to a cake mix, it will enhance the flavour of the whole cake. So perhaps the soul or spirit of a person is like the essence, it flavours and enhances our true being. Whereas the body is just the result of heredity and how we look after it, the mind (not just the physical brain) is created and altered by our reading, learning and experiences. That leaves the soul/spirit. If we all have one, when do we acquire it and does it enter into an embryo at conception or half way through the baby’s development in the womb, or at the time of birth?

I would be most interested in what other SoFiA members think about the Soul or Spirit.   


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